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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Christmas Spirit

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Christmas Spirit

 

The fact is that John hates Christmas.

It wasn’t always like this. As a kid, he’d certainly had all of the illusions that kids are supposed to have, even if reality never quite matched up. The presents were never as elaborate as in books and on the telly, or even as they were for most the other kids at school, but it was still exciting. For at least the week leading up to the actual day, the family would try to pull it together and act like a functioning family. Mum would lay into Dad about drinking so much and he’d grumblingly attempt to be sober for the hols and John and Harry could pretend that everything was fine and that they were all happy.

By university he’d lost his illusions. The Christmas when Dad had cracked Mum over the head and landed her in the hospital had more or less put the finishing touches on that, and after that he’d mostly been on his own during the holidays and Christmas just served to remind him of that. University had been one thing, with Christmases ranging from solitary to all right, depending on the year and if he’d found anyone with whom to spend the holidays. In the army it had been a little better, until the Christmas Day nine years ago when half his squadron had been lost on a mission that got ambushed by local tribes. Then there’d been his first Christmas back in London, a truly depressing and completely lonely affair spent literally alone in his dreary bed-sit. Mike had introduced him to Sherlock a month later and that had changed everything. He’d started hoping a little that Christmas at 221B would be a better time than most Christmases in the past had done, but then Irene Adler had gone and mucked that up, too, faking her death in the middle of their Christmas party. Though Sherlock had been doing his best to ruin that, already, and then Jeanette had broken up with him and he’d ended up spending the evening alone anyway, with Sherlock in his room reorganising his socks and John staying up to make sure that Mycroft’s constant (and so far unfounded) fear of a relapse hadn’t occurred.

And the following Christmas had been considerably worse, one of the hardest in his life. He’d ended up spending it, against his will, at the Centre with the other grief support group losers and he hadn’t been able to decide which was worse: drinking sickly-sweet red punch (non-alcoholic, given how many of the group had drinking problems) and watching everyone try to pretend it wasn’t the worst fucking day of the calendar year for people who’d lost everything that mattered to them, or what he’d ultimately done in the end – gone back to his tiny, empty flat and drunk the better part of a bottle of vodka all alone. He’d woken up face-down on the dirty grey carpeting, barely able to crawl into the loo to be extremely ill for the next two days. Hangovers had always been hard on him and God knew he’d had a few of those to contend with in that spectacularly awful phase of his life.

The next Christmas had been slightly better. He’d got himself back on track, got a job again, and spent Christmas with Harry and her then-current girlfriend. They hadn’t even minded much when he’d talked a bit too much about Sherlock, both of them patting his arms and Harry leaving off ridiculing him about their “platonic couple”-ness, as she’d always referred to it. She knew what he’d felt, much as he’d tried to deny it.

And then Sherlock had come back two months before the next Christmas, and that had been good. No: great, of course. Most people don’t get that, get to have the person they lost back. Only it was complicated, because by then, he’d met Mary and was on his way to actually being sort of happy again, but as much as he’d told everyone who would listen that he was moving on, he hadn’t, had he. Not really. And Mary knew. She’d listened to him go on about Sherlock for hours on end sometimes, occasionally asking questions but mostly letting him vent. Once she’d said, “You loved him, didn’t you,” and it wasn’t a question and John hadn’t denied it.

“He was my best friend,” he’d said, staring into his tea cup. “Of course I did. Yeah. I loved him.”

Mary had tactfully not pressed the point. But it had been odd, then, having the two of them meet. Spending Christmas all together, or at least up until the day itself. That, Mary had insisted they spend on their own, despite John’s protests that Sherlock would be all alone.

“Don’t be silly,” she’d said, nicely enough. “He’s got other friends. And Mycroft. They’ve got their parents. If he chooses to be on his own at Christmas, maybe it’s because he wants to be left alone.”

John had thought back to when Molly had let slip that Sherlock had been complaining about John spending Christmas with Harry, back during their first Christmas, and hadn’t said anything to Mary about it. Hadn’t said that he very strongly felt that he didn’t think that Sherlock wanted to be alone so much as he’d wanted to be with John for it. But then, Sherlock hadn’t exactly given any clear evidence that he did want that, either, so in the end John had let Mary have her way and spent Christmas with her alone in her flat. It was the only reasonable thing for an engaged man to do, really, he’d known. But still.

And last year, he’d spent Christmas with Sherlock all right – only Sherlock had shot Magnussen, got himself arrested and nearly sent off to Serbia to die in some probably-unnecessary MI6 mission, and that had rather ruined the day as well. So Christmas has not proven to be a good time, all things considered.

This year, however, it could be different. Things have changed drastically since last Christmas, God knows. He’d known before January had finished that it wasn’t going to work with Mary. Hell, he’d known before he’d taken her back, and a week was enough to have him lying awake seriously questioning his priorities and the choices he’d made. Guilt regarding the baby had kept him until the end of March. He’d made the mistake of telling Mary he wanted a divorce on the first of April. She’d thought it was a joke, albeit one made in very poor taste, and he’d had to awkwardly explain that he’d forgotten the date and was entirely in earnest. That hadn’t gone over particularly well at all. They’d fought and it had turned ugly. She’d brought Sherlock into it, mentioning his long-ago admission of love, which he’d intended her to interpret as platonic but hadn’t clarified for more than one reason (one being that it wasn’t). She hadn’t mentioned it since Sherlock had come back, and he’d been relieved that she seemed to have forgotten. She hadn’t, of course, and in the course of that fight he’d found out exactly how much she’d resented Sherlock and their friendship all along.

“Is that why you really shot him, then?” he’d asked, face blazing with heat. “Were you jealous?”

“Should I have been?” Mary had snapped back. “Other than your complete obsession with him, was there something else to be jealous of?”

“What the hell are you on about?” John had demanded. “You’re not actually suggesting that I would have – that we would have – ”

Mary had rolled her eyes. “Christ, you can’t even say it. That’s how deeply in denial you are. I should have known. I should have known all along.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” John had said, incredulous. “You shoot my best friend in the heart and then go turning the tables on me and saying I essentially gave you reason to do so because you think I have some sort of – I don’t even want to know what you’re imagining, but we don’t. We haven’t. Not ever.”

Her eyes had narrowed then. “But not for lack of wanting to, then,” she’d said, meanly. And accurately, but he was never going to admit that, was he?

In the end he’d never told Sherlock the real reason why Mary had won sole custody of Ainsley. That she’d managed to convince the divorce court that John had cheated, relying on John’s basic decency to leave her criminal record out of the discussion entirely, which he had done. Perhaps he shouldn’t have, but he didn’t and doesn’t consider Mary a threat to society any more. And besides, there was their child to consider. He has visiting rights, and somehow that’s meant to be enough, even if Mary’s moved to Pittsburgh. What on earth she could want to do in Pittsburgh is anyone’s guess, but at least he won’t have to worry about running into her. He’s going to visit – Ainsley, not Mary – next summer for a month and has been trying to persuade Sherlock to come with him. Sherlock doesn’t seem particularly interested in spending a month in America, but hasn’t said no yet, not outright, at least.

Speaking of whom… nothing has changed, much as John wishes it would have done by now. He moved back in as soon as he’d had it out with Mary. Throughout the month-long divorce proceedings, Sherlock had seemed cautiously neutral, glad enough to have him back home but seemingly steeled to accept the idea that John would leave again just as easily. It hadn’t been until the divorce was absolutely finalised and Mary had left for the United States two weeks after that Sherlock had changed.

John had walked slowly upstairs after having taken Mary and Ainsley to the airport, his heart wrecked over the temporary loss of his child (and it will be temporary, damn it: Mycroft has people keeping tabs on Mary over there and they report weekly. Her every movement will be tracked at every minute). He’d walked into the sitting room and Sherlock had sat up from the sofa, looked at him intently, then got up, crossed the room, and silently put his arms around John. He hadn’t said a word. Nor had John, not knowing what on earth he was supposed to say. Instead, he’d taken a moment to get over the idea that, for the first time in their entire friendship, Sherlock was hugging him. Then he’d slowly let his arms come up and held on, closing his eyes. It had felt like some part of his heart had crumbled to pieces as his infant daughter had disappeared from sight, and nothing Sherlock could do could ever repair that, make it whole again. But on the other hand, there had always been a large, Sherlock-shaped void in another part of his heart and for the first time, it had started to fill itself in a little, warming John in ways that he’d thought he’d never let himself hope.

Only nothing had come of it. Sherlock had stopped acting so reserved around him and started cautiously relaxing into the notion of John being home again (and it was already “home” to John again), though John suspected he was being rather keenly observed for at least a month following. But their friendship had bloomed again, spreading back into the space that Mary had occupied and taken from them. They’d gone back to crime-solving and having ridiculous adventures, and at first, back in summer, John had hoped that one day it would just become something more. Something would happen and they would both just know, somehow. They’d laugh a little too long about something and end up falling into each other’s arms. One of John’s regular, casual touches would linger and Sherlock would lean into it, maybe look into his eyes, and then they would kiss. Something along those lines.

But it’s never transpired. John had been almost sure that he’d seen it sometimes, in Sherlock’s eyes or face. That he would have gone for it, if the time had been right. But it never had been and maybe now it’s too late. The bloom has worn from the rose now, the window of opportunity closed, and perhaps they both know that this is all it will ever be. Not that their friendship isn’t still the best thing that’s ever happened to John – or to Sherlock, he thinks. They’re good for each other, and they’re good together. Maybe it was never meant to be anything more.

The thought depresses him more than it should.

He’s lain awake above Sherlock’s room, wishing that it could be different and wishing he knew how to bring that about, but nothing has occurred to him. He’s fantasised about this Christmas finally being the one that worked, where they were happy and Christmas felt magical the way it seems to do in books and movies. John is quite aware that his notion of what a good Christmas should be is closely tied to his feelings for Sherlock, but what’s wrong with that? Christmas is supposed to be about being with the people you love, and he loves Sherlock. Has done since long before he died, honestly, Mary notwithstanding. He loves Sherlock and he wants this to work. Only it doesn’t look like it will ever be anything more than a fantasy.

***

John is thinking about all of this again as he trudges up the stairs with four heavy bags of shopping in his hands. The bags are too tightly-packed and are cutting into his palms and leaving red and white rings where the circulation has been cut off. On top of which, it’s colder than he’d thought when he left Tesco and he hadn’t put his gloves on, then had been too stubborn to put the heavy bags down in the slush and grit to get them out. It’s only about -6 degrees but the wind is freezing.

Sherlock is sitting at the desk when he arrives, scowling and clicking the cursor keys rapidly. Ah: angry Tetris. Angry Tetris means that Sherlock is unable to solve a case or puzzle out a piece of evidence, so he will play Tetris until he reaches light speed and levels into the forties before finally losing and having a tantrum, slamming his laptop shut and invariably inflicting some form of damage on the sitting room in his wrath.

“I’m back,” John says unnecessarily. He hates angry Tetris. It was his own fault; he was the one who suggested that a puzzle game might help Sherlock work out difficult problems, and it often does help. But he’s long since wished he’d never suggested it.

“Not another square!” Sherlock lashes out at the screen, ignoring John. “Oh, for God’s sake!

He slams the laptop shut with enough force to smash the entire screen in, then looks up. “Good thing you’ve got about seventeen more of those,” John says, his patience straining.

Eleven squares in a row, John. There must be a bug or something.” Sherlock rakes his fingers through his hair, then frowns at the bags currently trying to break right open and deposit their contents on the carpet. “You got the shopping. I should help you unpack it,” he says, getting to his feet and coming over.

This is a pleasant surprise. Not that Sherlock hasn’t been consistently more considerate since John moved back in, but it’s rare that he’ll allow himself to be distracted from his own bad moods sufficiently to do something like come and help put the groceries away. “All right,” John says, looking for a place to set down the bags. The work top is full of dirty dishes and the table has an experiment sprawling all over it and he certainly doesn’t want the food anywhere near that. It doesn’t look or smell particularly bad but with Sherlock, one never knows whether toxicity will be a concern or not. He puts the bags down on the chairs instead.

“Sorry,” Sherlock says hastily, sweeping a scattering of petri dishes closer to the microscope and brushing off the surface of the table. “It’s not poisonous. You can put those up here.”

“It’s fine,” John says, getting out the fruit. The fruit bowl at the far end of the table has one sad-looking orange in it and two pieces of unopened junk mail. “Sherlock. Stop putting the junk mail in the fruit bowl.”

“Is it a fruit bowl?” Sherlock frowns at it. “I thought it was a mail bowl that you kept putting fruit in.” When John fails to laugh at this, he persists. “I thought the wire basket in the sitting room was for fruit.”

“That basket is just for apples.”

“I didn’t realise we were practising fruit segregation,” Sherlock says, and takes the milk and cheese to the fridge. “I thought they made Apartheid illegal back in the eighties.”

John looks at his back, smiles slightly to himself, then sighs. Sherlock’s quirky sense of humour would bring him more joy if he was allowed to actually express himself freely around him, but he can’t. Not without risking giving himself away all the time. He picks up a bag of satsumas and weighs the words he wants to say for a moment. “Sherlock… ”

Sherlock straightens up and turns around, lifting his brows. “What? Am I in trouble? There’s nothing distressing in the fridge at the moment, I promise.”

“No. It’s not that. I just…” John pauses again. He should probably just forget this. It’s bound to lead to nothing. “I just wondered what you’re doing for Christmas. That’s all.”

Sherlock’s brows come together. “Is it December already? Oh, I suppose it is. I don’t know. Has someone invited us somewhere?”

Us. The word manages to both lift John’s heart and simultaneously bother him. The fact that Sherlock is evidently assuming that their plans for Christmas naturally involve one another both makes him happy and frustrates him that Sherlock takes this for granted. He wants to be taken for granted, but only if it comes with the rest of the package. How much would he love to say, Look, I’ve been thinking – let’s get away this Christmas, just the two of us. I read about a romantic little inn up in [wherever, somewhere interesting] and I could phone and make a reservation. What do you think? But they’re not like that, are they? He should count himself lucky if Sherlock doesn’t spend the whole of the holiday season scoffing at tacky decorations and mentioning global warming every time he sees fairy lights in a shop window. “No,” John says to Sherlock’s question about an invitation. “Not so far, at least.” He hesitates, fidgeting with the plastic bag the oranges are in. “So you’re planning to stay in town, then? Not going to your parents’?”

“Oh, they might invite us, I imagine,” Sherlock says, unconsciously doing it again, calling them an us. He shrugs. “Why?” Suddenly he looks suspicious. “You don’t have plans, do you?”

He’s gone tense, his long spine rigid in its silk dressing gown, looking at John as though John might turn on him and announce he’s spending Christmas skiing in St. Moritz with a new girlfriend or something. He’s constantly on alert for new girlfriends, saying cryptic things about any halfway fanciable woman who crosses their path. John suppresses his irritation, wanting to bash Sherlock about the head with the truth. “No,” he says. “I haven’t got any plans.” He tries to put his shoulders down all the way and makes a conscious effort to soften his tone, forcing a smile. “So: Christmas at home, then. Here at the flat.”

“I suppose so,” Sherlock says, still frowning slightly at him.

John unties the bag of satsumas and tips the lot of them into the fruit bowl, having removed the circulars and the lone, moulding orange from it first. Somehow he feels slightly relieved. “You know Mrs Hudson will be on us to decorate. And if we don’t, she will.”

“Waste of energy,” Sherlock says instantly, closing the fridge and coming back to the table to see what else there is to put away.

John feels his lips tighten. Why does everything always have to be a battle? He picks up packet of fresh pasta and takes it to the fridge along with a container of coffee cream. “You could try,” he says. “Just for once.”

Sherlock pauses on his way to the cupboard, several cans and boxes cradled in his left arm. “By ‘try’, I assume you mean something other than decorating, which any idiot could do.”

“Never mind,” John says crossly, shutting the fridge. “Forget it.” He gets the eggs and puts them away, aware that Sherlock is still watching him warily.

They put the rest of the shopping away in silence.

***

Sherlock brings it up again later that night. They’re sitting in their chairs across from one another, sipping brandy that Sherlock bought that afternoon, and John’s lit the fire. They’ve been reading in companionable silence – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami in John’s case, and Computational Molecular Biology and Genomics: A Complete Dissertation by some PhD in Sherlock’s. Sherlock turns a page and says, “You meant about Christmas, earlier.”

“Hmm?” John doesn’t look up. One of the logs crackles loudly and collapses, shooting up a burst of sparks.

“What you said earlier,” Sherlock says, looking at John over the top of his book now. When John looks up, meeting his gaze, he goes on. “You meant that I should try harder regarding Christmas.”

John doesn’t lower his book, but says, “Yeah. That is what I meant.”

“You were bothered,” Sherlock says. “Angry, even.”

“Not angry,” John corrects. “Just – ”

“Just what?” Sherlock waits expectantly.

“Just – I don’t know,” John says. “It’s not important. Never mind.”

“That’s what you said earlier,” Sherlock says, looking irritated. “But it clearly matters to you. Explain. Please.”

Now John puts his book down and exhales deeply. “Look, I don’t know why I brought it up, with you of all people. I just – I’ve never actually had a really good Christmas in all my adult life and – I know you feel it’s all overly sentimental and pointless, which is why I shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. You don’t like that sort of thing, and honestly – neither do I, not anymore, anyway. Sometimes I still hope that Christmas will somehow be magical again, but even as a kid it only ever got halfway there. It’s fine. I’m glad we’ll both be here at Baker Street for it.” He finishes with a tight smile that he doesn’t feel and drops his eyes to the book again.

Sherlock clearly isn’t ready to drop the subject, however. “I don’t understand,” he says. “What’s the point of it all? What makes it ‘magical’ in the first place? I know you grew up somewhat Catholic, but you’ve never been particularly religious, and if it isn’t in observation of a religious event, then what’s the point beyond all the commercialism and excessive electricity?”

It’s a real question, annoying as it is. Of course Sherlock doesn’t get it. Another time, John might have snapped back to just never mind about it, because if a person doesn’t understand instinctively, how on earth is John supposed to explain it? But the question is genuine and Sherlock obviously does want to understand. And the brandy and the fire have mellowed him somewhat, as did Sherlock’s suggestion that they tackle the washing up together once they’d put the groceries away, earlier. John sighs. “I don’t know, all right? I don’t know exactly. You’re right, it’s not particularly religious for me. I think the point is about being with friends and family and the people you love. Taking time to spend with those people.”

Sherlock’s wary confusion deepens, rather than dissipating. “But you’re spending Christmas with me,” he says slowly, “or so I thought we said this afternoon.”

“No, we are,” John says, hastening to reassure him on that score. “And that’s fine. That’s good. You’re my best friend. Of course I would want to spend Christmas with you.”

“Then – I’m sorry, John, but I still don’t understand.” Sherlock gesticulates at the fire and at the two of them. “How is that particular day any different than right now? I mean, you and I spend time together all the time. We live together. We work together. So what makes Christmas time in particular, special? What element of the holiday makes it mean something more significant than any other day? Is it the presence of snow? Is it exchanging gifts, because you never get that worked up about birthdays. Is it some custom – food or certain music, or something along those lines?”

“I honestly don’t know,” John confesses. He looks down at the book again, not seeing the words. “I guess it’s probably because I’m a bit rubbish at Christmas spirit, myself.”

Sherlock begins to laugh, which surprises John. It’s a nice laugh, long and low, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“What?” John asks, not quite frowning at him. “What’s so funny?”

“You and I,” Sherlock says, still chuckling. “Having this discussion. We may be the worst people qualified to determine what makes Christmas significant apart from the religious celebration associated. You could make it a blog post: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Christmas Spirit.”

John begins to laugh, too. “That’s not bad,” he admits. He looks over at the fire and sighs again without meaning to. “I suppose we are rather the blind leading the blind here.”

Sherlock gives him a long, thoughtful look. “Tell you what,” he proposes. “Let’s experiment. This year, we’ll do all of it. We’ll do everything associated with Christmas and see if we can’t solve the mystery.”

John looks at him in surprise. “Really?” he says, astounded by this suggestion.

Sherlock shrugs. “Why not? It seems important to you. It won’t hurt. We’ll investigate and see where the magic is, or if it’s all just a cruel hoax to teach children a longstanding life lesson that everything in life is a disappointment and a lie.”

This is obviously meant to be a joke, so John shakes his head and smiles. “You may not be far off on that,” he says. Talking of lies makes him think of Mary, which is the last thing he wants to think about.

“Nonetheless,” Sherlock says briskly, “we’ll do the whole thing properly and see for ourselves. What’s the date today?”

“It’s the seventh,” John says. “Why?”

“Hmm, too late for an Advent calendar. Though we could still get one and just eat the first seven chocolates all at once.” Sherlock sits up straighter and takes out his phone, making a note. “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Nothing much,” John says, watching him type with his thumbs. “Why?”

“We’ll need to go to a florist’s,” Sherlock says, not looking at him. “We’ll get holly for the windows. Mrs Hudson has lights, so I’ll bring those up in the morning. We’re running low on firewood so we’ll get some more of that, too. Pine, I think. And we’ll need a tree. And ornaments. What else am I missing?”

John feels as though he’s just been hit by a tidal wave. Completely taken aback by Sherlock’s sudden enthusiasm (or determination, rather; it’s not the same thing), he shakes his head. “I – I don’t know,” he says, caught off-guard. He wracks his brain. “Christmas baking? We could – I don’t know, make fruitcake or something?”

“Should we have a Christmas party?” Sherlock asks. When John hesitates, he says quickly, “I’ll behave myself. Promise. Come on – we’ll need an occasion to serve said Christmas baking.”

“I suppose,” John says. “Then let’s ask Mrs Hudson to make mince pies. She’ll want to, anyway, and you know hers would turn out better than ours on a first go.”

“Don’t tell her we’re going to bake,” Sherlock says warningly. “Otherwise she’ll come up to ‘help’ and end up taking over. The point is for us to do this ourselves so that we can fully live the Christmas experience.” He says this with so much relish it almost sounds grim.

“True,” John admits, meaning Mrs Hudson. “Er. Are we going to exchange gifts?”

“Absolutely,” Sherlock says at once, typing it into his note. “It’s traditional.”

“Then we should have stockings, too.”

“Stockings,” Sherlock repeats, adding it to the list. He looks up and smiles his brisk, slightly insincere smile that he uses for clients at John. “Right. We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow. I’ll need to do some research.”

“Sherlock…” John still feels a bit as though he’s been hit by a train. “You don’t need to do that. I think we’ve got lots here.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “No. We are going to do this properly,” he says firmly, and with that, disappears into the world of online research.

John watches him for a moment or two, then, feeling secretly more pleased than he cares to admit, finally picks up his book again.

***

Sherlock is studiously threading pieces of popcorn onto a long strand. “Blast,” he says, stabbing himself in the finger with his needle for about the third time.

“You’re supposed to wear a thimble,” John says, wrestling with the twigs he’s attempting to form into a wreath. “That’s what Mrs Hudson told you.”

“Us,” Sherlock corrects him, focused on his popcorn. “Don’t tell her; she’ll only rub it in.”

“You could just wear the thimble.”

“I’m fine.”

Silence falls again, only it isn’t silence because the London Symphony is playing Handel’s Messiah in the background. Sherlock insisted that it’s appropriate for the season and that carols come in closer to the twenty-fifth itself. His research has evidently been thorough and it’s only been two days since their conversation. John is half-amused and half-dreading finding out what else will crop up in Sherlock’s insistence that they do Christmas “properly” in their search for its elusive magic. John is already wishing he hadn’t used that word, because he strongly suspects that going at Christmas like a drill sergeant is highly unlikely to increase any sense of magic at all. He puts the wreath down on his lap for a moment and picks up his hot chocolate. Sherlock insisted that it’s traditional to drink hot chocolate while decorating the tree. John had responded dryly, saying that he hadn’t been aware that there was a field manual on traditional English Christmas practises, and added a large amount of Bailey’s to both cups. Sherlock hadn’t complained about this apparent unorthodoxy, at least. He had pointed out that apple cider was also an option but thought that perhaps they should save that for the Christmas party.

Thinking of this reminds John to bring up the subject. “So who are inviting to this party of ours?” John asks. He reaches over to the table beside his chair for a long piece of gold ribbon to weave into and around the twigs in an effort to keep them together. He had not previously realised that crafts were such an important feature of Christmas spirit and had suggested just buying a wreath, but Sherlock had – naturally – been quite insistent on that point, too.

Sherlock shrugs, not looking up from his popcorn. “The usual suspects, I thought. Mrs Hudson, obviously. Lestrade. Mike Stamford, if you like.”

“Molly,” John adds, glancing up from his ribbon winding and reaching for a spray of artificial cranberries to stick in among the twigs.

Sherlock sighs but doesn’t contradict him. He holds up his popcorn garland. “Do you think this is long enough?” It’s long than he can hold stretched between his arms.

John is actually rather impressed. “Well, if you think it’s long enough to go around the tree, then yes.”

“Yes, that was my question,” Sherlock says, getting to his feet. “I should have measured first to calculate the necessary length. However, this may just do.”

He fastens the top of the garland near the crown of the tree and begins to wind as the London Symphony and Chorus begin For unto us a Child is born and hums along with the coloratura in the soprano section. “Need a hand?” John asks, laying the wreath aside. He gets up and takes a handful of the leftover popcorn, since Sherlock won’t be using it for anything else.

“Perhaps, yes,” Sherlock says. “If you could bring around the back there – yes, like that. Don’t let it get too close to any of the lights. They won’t get hot enough to burn the popcorn, probably, but let’s not take chances. Pine trees are highly flammable.” His hand is ready and waiting when John passes the garland back to him. There is one more pass around the back and then Sherlock pronounces himself satisfied as he tucks the end into the needles. He looks over at John’s abandoned wreath and says, “Yes, you can finish that later. Traditionally the tree should be decorated together.” He turns to the desk to the boxes of ornaments they bought earlier and takes the lids off. “Heavier, larger ornaments closer to the bottom, smaller, lighter things on top.”

“Right,” John says. He honestly can’t remember the last time he decorated a Christmas tree. He chooses a medium-sized glass bauble with a faux pine branch inside and, as he hooks it onto a branch in the front and centre of the tree, a small burst of happiness wells in his chest. He glances at Sherlock, whose brow is slightly furrowed as he fastens the wires of a large, white peacock onto a lower branch, its long feather tail hanging gracefully down. John had thought that the peacock was ridiculous when they bought it, but Sherlock had seemed oddly entranced by it and had insisted, so here they are with a Christmas peacock in their tree. John watches Sherlock fuss at it and the happiness grows. He wants to kiss the furrow and make it disappear. The music is somehow making his heart feel lighter than it should. “Maybe we should go and see a performance of this somewhere,” he says spontaneously.

Sherlock glances up to see John watching him and straightens up, apparently satisfied with the peacock’s placement. “We could do that,” he agrees cautiously. “There are bound to be performances of it at this time of the year. I’ll look into it.”

“I don’t mind,” John offers. “I suggested it, and you’re already planning everything else.”

“If you like, then,” Sherlock says, surrendering.

They both go back to the desk for a second ornament. (Of course Sherlock chose the peacock first, John thinks fondly.) He chooses four small glass stars and begins placing them strategically toward the top of the tree. Sherlock leans over very close to him to hang a faux-brass French horn near one of them, close enough that John can feel the warmth of his body. It feels both comfortable and charged – to him, at least. Maybe Sherlock is immune to that sort of thing.

They finish the tree after after about half an hour. “Let’s turn off the lights and see how it looks,” John proposes, and Sherlock agrees. They’ve put the tree on the right side of the kitchen doorway for maximum visibility. Sherlock starts shutting off lights. John turns off the desk lamp and the standing lamp in the corner, retrieves his hot chocolate and goes to sit on the sofa to take in the effect.

Sherlock comes over, shutting the door of the flat to block out the light from the corridor. He sits down beside John, quite close, but then he never did pay any attention to trivialities such as personal space. The glow of the multicoloured lights makes the flat feel warm, and the tree looks lovely. “I think it looks quite nice,” Sherlock says after a moment. He picks up his mug of hot chocolate and leans back into the sofa.

John follows suit, realising only after he did so that Sherlock had put his arm along the back of the sofa. That’s nothing new, but when it’s all quiet and dark and content like this, it feels different. Like it means something, though John has enough sense to know that it doesn’t. “I do, too,” he says. They drink their hot chocolate and listen to the rest of Part I of Messiah in comfortable silence.

***

John’s shoulder is aching slightly as he attempts to cream butter and sugar together. Beside him, Sherlock is chopping nuts – pecans, John thinks. The kitchen is full of the smell of things baking and it all smells rather delicious. They chose four recipes from Sherlock’s exhaustive list of Christmas baking and have each tackled two of them. Meanwhile, Sherlock has put on a CD of choral music in the background and it’s rather lovely, if not recognisably Christmas-related, at least not to John’s ear.

“I’ve had a look at church services on Christmas Eve,” Sherlock says. “I’ve narrowed it down to the two best in the city, although there’s a bit of debate about that. Based on your musical preferences over the past few days, I think you would most like to go to either St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey.”

John stops stirring and looks at Sherlock, frankly taken aback and unable to hide it. “Church services?” he repeats incredulously. “You? In a church?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes and goes on chopping. “Yes, John. Church. It’s traditional, at least on Christmas Eve at midnight. Though why they say midnight when nearly every service I checked begins at eleven is anyone’s guess. Added to which, I imagine that your family went to midnight mass at least sometimes. I didn’t think you’d particularly care about the denomination, though, unless you’re feeling a sudden resurgence of Catholicism.”

“No,” John says at once. “I’m not. But – I mean, I don’t care, really. I just didn’t think you would ever want to set foot in a church, given your general feelings on religion and its inherent lack of logic and all that.”

Sherlock shrugs and sweeps his pecans into a small bowl. He goes to the fridge to get the eggs out again and begins breaking them into a bowl. No, not breaking them, John realises, watching him. Separating the yolks from the whites. “I like classical music. The story is all fine and good. I’m not bothered by any of it, really. The architecture is nice in both churches. And it could prove nostalgic for you in the right ways.”

John shakes his head. “You will never cease surprising me,” he says, reaching for an egg to add to his batter. The butter and sugar seem as mixed as they’re likely to. “Well, why don’t you choose? Is there any way of knowing in advance which place is doing which music? That’s probably the deciding factor, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” Sherlock agrees. “In that case, Westminster. They’re doing Victoria’s O magnum mysterium, which is exquisite, a French carol called Quelle est cette odeur agréable, Lo how a rose e’er blooming by Praetorius, and a number of other things along those lines. You’ve heard the Victoria before. It’s on this CD.”

John gives him a blank look. “Play it again,” he requests.

Sherlock dutifully goes to his laptop and changes the track.

The piece begins. It’s slow and lovely, unfurling line by line like a rose blooming in slow motion, John thinks. He does remember this one by ear, now that he’s listening to it and paying attention. They listen in silence, each working on his own creation. Sherlock adds a large amount of sugar to a bowl and quietly gets out the electric mixer but waits for the song to end before turning it on. When the piece finishes, Sherlock gives him a quizzical look.

“It’s beautiful,” John says. “Fine, then. Let’s go to Westminster Abbey.”

“Good choice,” Sherlock says, and turns the mixer on, beating his egg whites and sugar together.

John mixes flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl, then adds the butter and sugar and the rest, wrestling it into submission. “Sherlock.”

“Hmm?” Sherlock is lining baking sheets with parchment and doesn’t look up.

“Why don’t you like Christmas, then?” John asks. “Is it just that you grew up cynical or something? Did Mycroft ruin it for you as a child? Did something happen that made you not like it?”

Sherlock is quiet for a moment. “Why do you ask?”

“I just wondered,” John says. His words hang between them. He can actively hear Sherlock deciding whether or not to answer, and if so, how.

Finally he says, “There was something, in fact.” He is spooning out dabs of white fluff onto the parchment now. John decides they’re meringues, or will be once they’ve baked. “I had a dog, as a child. Or we did, rather. It was a family dog.”

“Right,” John says. “I remember. Redbeard.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says. He focuses on the task at hand, studiously not looking at John. “He… got sick, rather suddenly. I was just a child. He had to be put down.”

“Okay,” John says, waiting for the connection.

“On Christmas Day,” Sherlock finishes. He scrapes out the last of the meringue mixture from the bowl and he sets it aside.

“Ah.” The syllable is enough; John understands now. “How old were you?” he asks after a moment.

“Eight.”

“Jesus.” John glances at him, sees the tension in Sherlock’s shoulders, sees him staring unseeingly at the unbaked meringues. He’s never got over it, he realises. “And that basically ruined Christmas for you for life.”

“More or less,” Sherlock agrees. He stirs himself to look over at the oven. “These will take awhile to bake, but you still have to roll out your dough and cut the shapes. Would you mind if I put these in now?”

“Go ahead,” John tells him. He shakes some flour out onto the work top so that the dough won’t stick. “I’ve never had a dog,” he says, his back to Sherlock. “I always wanted one. There was an old man who lived down the street who had a bull dog and I wanted a dog just like his, but my mother always said that she would end up being the one to look after it, no matter how much I insisted that I would do all that. I would have, too.”

“Of course you would have,” Sherlock says, coming back over and setting a timer on his phone. “Basic caretaker instinct.” He gives John a small smile and nods at the pile of cookie cutters that Mrs Hudson has lent them. “What shapes are you going to make them?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” John says. He picks them up one at a time. “Christmas trees, perhaps?”

“Excellent. I’ll make green icing for them,” Sherlock says. He gets out the confectioner’s sugar. “Do you still want a dog?”

For a moment John thinks they’re still talking about the shapes of the sugar cookies but then he realises Sherlock has gone back to the other subject. “I haven’t thought about it in years, frankly,” he says honestly. “Maybe you’re quite enough to look after.”

Sherlock snickers. “You would know,” he concedes. He looks over at John, who is rolling out the dough now. “Don’t make it too thin,” he advises. “We don’t want them to burn.”

We. John notices this and manages – just barely – to keep his smile to himself.

***

Preparations for Christmas continue much in this manner. John enters each new project Sherlock proposes with increasingly less reluctance. Sherlock has seemingly devoted himself so thoroughly to this (ridiculous) project of doing every possible traditional Christmas time activity that John feels it would be churlish to be a jerk about it. He’s stopped asking if everything is necessary and just going along with it.

His sole major contribution in the way of ideas was the Messiah concert, which he buys tickets for the nineteenth, the night before their party. They finish eating dinner the evening of the concert and Sherlock asks how formally John is planning on dressing. John realises he hasn’t given this any thought whatsoever. “I don’t know,” he responds, suddenly at a loss. “What should I wear? It’s at the Barbican. I’ve actually never been there, apart from that one case with the violin theft and there wasn’t a concert going on at the time.”

“Wear a suit,” Sherlock advises. “You don’t have to wear a tie. Just a nice shirt. Wear that red one that Harry and What’s-her-name gave you for your birthday, with your black suit.”

“All right,” John says. He checks the time. “I’ll just go up and change, then. Leave in fifteen?”

“Sure.” Sherlock gets up and takes their plates to the sink. “I’ll go and do the same.”

When John comes down, Sherlock is waiting in the sitting room, his coat, shoes, and gloves already on. “You were quick,” John comments.

Sherlock merely smiles. “You look nice,” he says, and John feels his cheeks warm unexpectedly. It’s rare for Sherlock to just come out and compliment him directly, unless it’s a moment of great importance or it slips out with a bunch of other things he’s saying at the same time. It makes him feel inexplicably nervous, as though this is a date, rather than two flatmates going to a concert together.

“Thanks,” he says, trying not to get flustered and stupid over it. “I’m sure you do, too, under your coat.” (Oh. That sounded slightly more suggestive than he’d intended.)

Sherlock has ignored this, however, already moving down the stairs to hail a taxi. John continues to feel a bit like this is a big, fancy date rather than a casual outing between two friends. He doesn’t know why – maybe it’s just because they’ve dressed up and they’re doing something they’ve never done together before. He watches the city go by, feeling happier than he has in ages.

When they get inside, they go to the cloak room to check their coats and John notices that Sherlock is also wearing a black suit with a red shirt. He nearly does a double take when Sherlock takes off his coat. Sherlock gives him an innocent look, though there is mischief playing about the corners of his mouth. “What?”

“We’re matching,” John says, not quite accusingly.

Sherlock shrugs, still looking somewhat pleased with himself. “I thought red would be festive. It is Christmas. And green makes me look sallow. Not you, but you don’t have a green shirt.”

“I could have worn my grey suit,” John points out.

“Black is more formal,” Sherlock says, brushing this off. “Stop complaining. You look nice.”

“I’m not complaining.” John falls into step beside Sherlock, who seems to know where to go, and decides not to say that if Sherlock wasn’t deliberately aiming for them to look like a couple, he hasn’t done a very good job of it. Then again, he probably has no idea and it would be immensely awkward to explain this, so no. He won’t say anything. They collect their programmes and are shown to their seats and settle in to wait for the concert.

It’s rather lovely, John thinks, as the concert progresses. Sherlock explained the basic set-up of the orchestra to him before it started, plus the soloists are wonderful and the entire thing is very nice. They drink champagne at the interval and John sees their reflection in a window and thinks they look rather suave. Sherlock, of course, looks the way he always looks: tall, impossibly handsome in his own, unique way, his suit cut perfectly for the slim, elegant lines of his body. But they look right together, John thinks, stealing looks at the pale hollow of Sherlock’s throat. He smells like expensive aftershave and standing there, one elbow leaning on a tall cocktail table with a champagne flute dangling from his fingers, John wants more than ever to take him by the arm, lead him into some private nook or cranny and snog him breathless. This is clearly not in the cards, though, so he drinks his champagne and attempts to rein in his imagination.

They run into a former client and wife, who are very pleased to see them both and insist on introducing them to the rest of their party, and for once Sherlock is actually quite pleasant, not insulting anyone present. Although John sort of likes it when Sherlock just decides to blatantly flaunt every known rule of social engagement from time to time, depending on the circumstances. He even envies it a little. He shouldn’t laugh when Sherlock appals people, but it is funny and Sherlock, unfortunately, knows that he finds it funny. The problem is that he still frequently crosses the line from funny into seriously offensive without knowing – or worse, caring – about the difference. Even so, John doesn’t really mind. Cussing Sherlock out over it is half the fun, honestly.

When the concert is over, John assumes they’ll go straight home but Sherlock asks if he’d like to go out for a drink. “Okay,” John agrees, feeling pleasantly surprised by this. “Where do you want to go?”

They’re outside on Beech Street and Sherlock nods at a restaurant across the street. “What about there? It looks promising.”

John agrees, so they cross the street and go inside. The restaurant is full of other concert-goers but they get seated straight away and order drinks. It feels more like a date than ever, John thinks, well aware that numerous people have side-eyed their matching ensembles with indulgent smiles throughout the evening already.

“Are you ordering anything to eat?” Sherlock asks.

“I shouldn’t. I’ve eaten too much Christmas baking as it is,” John says.

“It doesn’t show,” Sherlock says to the menu, and John wonders if he’s avoiding eye contact on purpose. Before John can respond to this, he turns the menu back to face him. “Look at the chocolate cake. It looks divine.”

John reads the description, full of sinful words like mousse and ganache and cream and his mouth waters. “Get it, then.”

“Only if you share it with me. I don’t want an entire piece of cake,” Sherlock says.

“Fine, then. Order it.” John gives the menu back to him.

The server approaches, bringing their drinks (hot eggnog with rum for Sherlock and an Irish coffee for John) and Sherlock orders the cake. He picks up his drink and sips, then puts it down and leans forward, his fingers lacing together on the table. “Now then,” he says, sounding business-like, “how are we doing for the party tomorrow?”

John relaxes a bit. This is safe territory. “Oh, I think we’re in good shape,” he says. “Everyone’s coming that we invited, or so they’ve said. Mrs Hudson’s made enough mince pies to feed sub-Saharan Africa, and we’ve finished decorating now that the holly’s up. We just have to make the cider and mull the wine tomorrow. And I thought I’d maybe hoover.”

“You should let Mrs Hudson do that,” Sherlock tells him. “She just told me this afternoon that she was planning on it and you know she thinks you don’t really know how to do it properly.”

John sighs, then laughs. “I’m not going to arm-wrestle her for the privilege,” he says. His coffee is hot and strong and very alcoholic. There’s a bit of whipped cream on top, too, so he dabs at his mouth with a serviette after sipping it. “Here, try this,” he says, passing it to Sherlock.

Sherlock automatically pushes his own drink to John in exchange and as they sample each other’s beverages, John thinks of how much they already are a couple. If only they could have the rest of it, too. The goodnight kiss. The part that comes after it, too. But not just that – all of the smaller things. Being able to take Sherlock’s hand during the concert or in the taxi, or even now. He looks at Sherlock’s hand resting on the table and is filled with the desire to cover it with his own and try to put into words exactly how much all of this means to him and always has.

The cake arrives instead, distracting him out of his thoughts. “Bon appétit,” Sherlock says, with just enough French accent to remind John of his disastrous revelation in the restaurant the night he sort of proposed to Mary. Strangely enough, the memory only makes him want to smile now.

***

The party is as much a success as their last one five years ago was a failure. The flat is cleaner than it’s been in years, the fire crackling and the air full of cinnamon and cloves from the cider and mulled wine, and everyone is behaving well. They’ve lit candles as well and set them around the sitting room and John has opened the cards they’ve received and displayed them on the mantle. Sherlock graciously dons Mrs Hudson’s treasured antlers for his violin solos and keeps them on for the entire party without a word of complaint, not even when Lestrade takes a video of him wearing them while talking to Molly’s new boyfriend. Donovan and her boyfriend spend much of the evening snogging under the mistletoe Sherlock insisted they buy for the party when they were at the florist’s getting the holly. Harry and her new(ish) girlfriend come and somehow strike up a long-running and lively debate with Mike Stamford and Anderson, of all people, about the new mayor. John picks up an empty tray and takes it into the kitchen and Lestrade follows him, refilling his wine glass from the pot of mulled wine on the stove.

“Good party, mate,” he says, replacing the lid on the pot.

“Cheers,” John says, helping himself to more of the apple cider, which he made himself that afternoon while Sherlock was mulling the wine. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“How did you engineer all this, then?” Lestrade wants to know.

“What do you mean?”

Lestrade nods in Sherlock’s direction. “I mean, look at the place. A tree and everything! And he says you two did all the baking, or nearly all of it. And he’s wearing antlers, for God’s sake – how did you persuade him to be so unusually cooperative about all this? Have you drugged him or something?”

“No, not at all,” John tells him, following his gaze to Sherlock and smiling a bit despite himself. Sherlock is listening to Anderson’s slightly wild-eyed friend who is likely going on about some government conspiracy theory and frowning intelligently as though he is following (and caring) and has probably forgotten that he still has the antlers on. They somehow make him look endearingly younger and a bit silly and John is completely charmed. “It was all his idea, actually.”

“What!” Lestrade stares at him. “You’re joking!

“I’m not. It was his idea that we do Christmas ‘properly’,” John says. “I was just saying one day, about ten days ago, that I’ve never really had a really good Christmas and that it had lost all sense of magic. So Sherlock, being Sherlock, grilled me on what element of Christmas celebrations make it ‘magical’, and I couldn’t tell him – ”

“Of course not,” Lestrade interjects sympathetically.

“ – so he decided that we should do absolutely everything this year and investigate it for ourselves,” John says. He stops and watches Lestrade attempt to process this and manfully struggle not to laugh.

He doesn’t when he realises that John is absolutely serious. “So – what’s that all included, then?”

“Well, we decorated, obviously,” John says. “We got a tree. He made me make the wreath that’s on the front door, which I’m sure you didn’t notice, but Molly says it’s very nice, for the record. We made cookies. We went ice skating in Hyde Park, went to see Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican last night. Tomorrow we’re supposed to go shopping in Piccadilly Circus and then in the evening we’re going on some open-air bus tour of Christmas lights in the city or some such thing. Then it’s Westminster Abbey for Christmas Eve, and then we’re going to his parents’ for dinner on Christmas Day.”

“Wow,” Lestrade says, sounding impressed. “That’s quite a lot.”

“Whenever I try to protest something or ask if it’s really necessary, Sherlock reminds me that we’re supposed to be doing Christmas ‘properly’ this year, so I can’t really complain,” John says. Sherlock must have heard his name or felt his ears burning, because he glances up from his conversation then, catching John’s eye. He smiles, a real smile complete with his eyes crinkling up at the corners, and John smiles back before he can help it.

Lestrade catches the exchange and says, his eyes narrowed a bit in speculation, “And the ‘magic’? How’s that working out? Are you feeling it?”

“I think I am, a bit,” John admits, deciding to disregard how silly it makes him sound. He confirms it inwardly, watching Sherlock in his antlers and thinks, Yeah. I’m definitely feeling it.

***

Before John knows it, the last four days have gone by and it’s Christmas Eve. He’s not sure how formally one is supposed to dress for church but he figures it would be better to be safe than sorry and puts on his grey suit with the same red shirt that Sherlock apparently likes. He leaves the top button undone and fusses with his hair in the small mirror in his bedroom before going down. This time he’s the first one ready to go, but then the bathroom door opens and Sherlock emerges, his hair exactly perfect. He’s wearing a different black suit with a shirt the colour of claret, dark enough to make his skin even paler, his strange, bright eyes standing out above it. He feels John’s eyes on him and meets his gaze as he comes down the corridor. He looks John over but doesn’t say anything about his appearance this time. “Ready?”

“Whenever you are,” John responds.

“Let’s go.”

They’re both quiet in the taxi. John looks out the windows again and thinks of Sherlock’s complaint on the open-air bus tour the other night, that his only issue with Christmas this year is that is hasn’t snowed yet. It still hasn’t, but the air is just as crisp and the lights just as bright even without snow. John thinks of his gift for Sherlock and hopes he’ll like it, that it doesn’t seem too romantic. After dithering from the moment they decided to exchange gifts, John finally decided on season’s tickets to the London Symphony for the next season. Given how much they both liked the Messiah concert, John thought it a safe bet. It’s a gift for both of them, really, but perhaps he should stress that Sherlock can certainly take someone else if he’d like to, sometime. Not that he particularly wants to say this, but it does seem like the thing to do. The stockings were easy; they both agreed to fill the other’s. Sherlock asked Mrs Hudson if she might want one, too, but she thanked him and said that she was going to her sister’s after breakfast where they would have one for her. John did a bit of his own research to find out what a stocking is traditionally supposed to contain (fruit and nuts, evidently) and bought modern versions of these. A satsuma at the very bottom, then bags of gourmet, mixed, and chocolate-covered nuts, some small trinkets like a new pocket knife, a bottle of cologne that John thought Sherlock might like, some fancy chocolates from a shop that Sherlock has frequented before, and a candy cane hooked over the top edge. He’s been keeping it in his room and will put it up once they’re home from the eleven o’clock service.

People are streaming into Westminster Abbey when they arrive. John stays close to Sherlock to make sure they won’t get separated in the crowd. They find seats about two-thirds of the way back down the long, narrow nave, and John opens his leaflet to see what to expect. Sherlock entertains him until the service begins by telling him some of the history of the building and who’s all buried there, and John is once again impressed with Sherlock’s level of detail in terms of his planning. Truth be told, this entire Christmas experiment has been somewhat like the beginning stages of a relationship, the romantic sort, though he knows that it’s just Sherlock’s project to thoroughly explore what possible “magic” there could be in such an overly-commercialised and sentimental holiday. Still, his planning has been meticulous, and John has honestly been having the nicest Christmas season he could possibly have imagined. It’s exactly what he could have wanted, with the sole exception being that the two of them aren’t where he wishes they were. That the inherent romance he’s been feeling in a lot of the things they’ve done over the past three weeks only exists on his side and will disappear as soon as Boxing Day dawns.

Or so he thinks until one particular moment in the service. The choir has already sung several times, exquisitely at that, some readings have been read, and a very pleasant and inoffensive homily has been given. Communion is being served now and while the people around them queue up to go to the front for it, the choir begins to sing again, and this time it’s the piece they specifically came for, O magnum mysterium, from Sherlock’s recording. John closes his eyes to listen to it, lifting his chin a little and letting the music soak into him. The piece ends and he hears Sherlock sigh. John opens his eyes and looks at Sherlock, who closed his eyes during it, too. They’re still closed, and there is a look on his face that John is at a loss to describe as anything other than longing. His heart gives a sharp twist at this and he wonders what Sherlock is so privately yearning for, and if there is any chance on this earth that it could be him. What if it is? What if they’ve just misunderstood each other all along? Has Sherlock been wanting it, too? If he did, then why didn’t he ever say so?

Sherlock opens his eyes and John looks quickly away, his heart thumping in his chest. The priestly sort at the front is talking again, and it’s time for another hymn, it seems. The choir recesses during it, the high voices singing an impossibly high descant during the last stanza, and then it’s over. They get up and are swept out into the cool night with the rest of the horde. Everyone around them is wishing one another Merry Christmas and they all look terribly happy.

They get outside and John sees instantly, to his delight, that it’s begun to snow. “It’s snowing!” he says, in spite of the obviousness of the fact.

Sherlock turns his face up to the sky, smiling. “So it is,” he says. “Just in time for Christmas.” He stops once they’ve moved out of the crowd and looks around at the snow in satisfaction. “I couldn’t have ordered better timing, myself.”

“It’s perfect,” John says, happiness welling in his gut.

Sherlock looks at him for a long moment. “Before we go home, why don’t we walk across the bridge and back?” he suggests.

“Yes, let’s do that,” John agrees, not ready to go inside just yet. They walk toward Westminster Bridge, leaving much of the crowd behind them. It’s beautiful. Big Ben is lit up for Christmas and the snow muffles their footsteps as they walk, draping all of London in a thick, white blanket. And in and among it all, John can feel it: that specialness that makes Christmas feel properly like Christmas. And beyond that, he feels somehow that something important is about to happen. The atmosphere between them feels charged – not negative, just – important. Something is going to happen. He can feel it.

They both instinctively stop in the middle of the bridge and turn to face the west, leaning on the rail. John still feels all of it and waits for Sherlock to be the first one to say something and break the comfortable-yet-significant silence between them.

“So,” Sherlock says quietly, eyes watching the Thames flow by beneath them. “We’ve made it to Christmas Eve. Did we manage it, would you say? Did you feel the ‘magic’ at all?”

“Yeah,” John says. “I did and I do. Have you – felt it, I mean?”

Sherlock thinks about this for a long moment then nods. “Yes, I believe I did. But I’m not at all sure that it has anything to do with Christmas. What I’m feeling.”

John doesn’t know what to say to this. “Sherlock…” he says slowly, trailing off.

Sherlock turns then and looks at him, and suddenly John can see it all, can see the answer to his unspoken question back in the church. Sherlock has dropped his defences, letting him see it plainly for the first time. “It’s you, John,” he says, his eyes so unshuttered and honest that it pains John. “It’s always been you.”

John opens his mouth and realises that he feels so much at once that he can’t even find the words to say the right thing in response. “It’s – has it – has it really?” he asks stupidly, getting the words out.

“Yes, John. It has. You’re what makes it feel magical.” Sherlock takes a step closer, his eyes on John’s. John feels rooted to the ground, his heart blocking his throat. He tries to say Sherlock’s name but it won’t come out. Sherlock hesitates for a moment, then slowly, carefully puts his mouth on John’s.

John’s arms put themselves around Sherlock without any conscious volition on his own part and he kisses back with no hesitation whatsoever. He suspects that Sherlock only meant to kiss him chastely and briefly, but when he starts to pull away, John presses closer and Sherlock changes his mind and leans into him in response. John can feel every tiny doubt and decision going on in Sherlock’s head and loves him all the more for it. So far their lips have just been pressing together, releasing and meeting again, but this time when the kiss breaks off, Sherlock’s lips are parted. John takes advantage of this by sucking gently on Sherlock’s full lower lip and feels Sherlock’s mouth close over his upper lip. It goes on for several long, rather glorious minutes and by the end they’re close enough that John can feel Sherlock’s heart beating even through both their coats.

He looks dazed when the kiss finally ends, his pupils flooding the silver of his irises in the lamplight. There are large, fluffy snowflakes in his hair and John wants to brush them away. (Later, he tells himself.) “I take it that you feel the same way,” Sherlock manages to say, blinking at him.

John laughs and realises that it’s the first time he’s laughed since before Sherlock died that hasn’t come with a weight or shadow on his heart. “You could say that,” he says. He pulls off his gloves and reaches up to touch Sherlock’s face with his left hand, his right arm still firmly around Sherlock’s back. “You’re the very best thing that’s ever happened to me, you know,” he says, meaning it one hundred percent.

“Likewise,” Sherlock says, a small smile tightening the corners of his mouth. “I mean that, John: the very best.”

John shakes his head. “But I had no idea that you wanted this,” he says honestly. “If you did, why didn’t you say something before? Or is it – a new thing?”

“No,” Sherlock says, rather dryly. “It’s not new at all. Not remotely.”

“Then why – ”

“Because I didn’t want to push my luck,” Sherlock tells him, his eyes probing John’s. “When you first moved back in, I didn’t even want to let myself hope that you were going to stay. I told myself that you were only staying until you worked things out with Mary. But then you did stay and I told myself not to get any ideas, that you’d never wanted anything like that and that if I ever brought it up and you weren’t interested, it would ruin our friendship. Which I firmly believe it would have done.”

“But all along, you did want this?” John asks, looking into Sherlock’s eyes for the truth.

Sherlock nods. “Always,” he says simply, and John can’t stop himself from kissing Sherlock again.

It goes on for even longer this time, Sherlock’s arms finally coming around him instead of him just loosely holding onto John’s elbows. People go by every so often but John could not possibly care less. Not when this is finally, unbelievably, happening. John opens his mouth a little more and touches his tongue to Sherlock’s and the kiss grows even more passionate, much more so than he’d ever given Sherlock credit for being capable of, and the revelation is utterly amazing, John thinks dizzily. The next time they part, Sherlock leans his forehead against his, breathing through his mouth, his hands cupping John’s face and jaw line. “I can’t believe it took us this long,” John says, feeling as though his heart might actually combust on the spot.

“I didn’t know how to ask,” Sherlock says. “I was growing quite hopeless and trying to resign myself to just being grateful to have you as a friend, because I didn’t know how to find out without taking the risk of losing you.”

“I know,” John says. “I was doing the exact same thing! I kept hoping it would just – happen on its own one day, without having to talk about it. But it never did and I was telling myself the same thing, to just be glad that we were living together again and that my disastrous marriage was out of the way. I didn’t know how to ask, either. I suppose I thought that whatever chance there had been for us had had its moment and that we’d missed it.”

“I asked myself the same thing,” Sherlock tells him. “So when you brought up the subject of Christmas and our spending it together – I admit that I took it as an opportunity to – to put it a rather old-fashioned way, court you. Explore the possibility, but all under the safe guise of ‘Christmas spirit’. All of those things we did – I was well aware that they are things that normally couples would do. Even I know that.”

John smiles at him, and it’s probably completely goofy and foolish-looking, but he doesn’t care. “I kept thinking things we were doing felt like dates but little did I know. I kept not mentioning that on purpose, you idiot.”

“We’re a pair of idiots,” Sherlock confirms. “But we’ve got it sorted now, haven’t we?”

“We have,” John says. Big Ben chimes the hour then: one o’clock in the morning. “Let’s go home,” he says.

“Let’s find a cab,” Sherlock says. “The tube will be closed by now.”

They turn and begin to walk back toward the north bank and John finally does what he’s been yearning to do for months (years, really) now and takes Sherlock’s hand. Sherlock looks down at their joined hands and smiles.

***

Back at the flat, they take off their coats and shoes and put everything away. “Are we putting out each other’s stockings now?” John asks.

“Yes, of course,” Sherlock says. “But we can’t look at them until morning.”

“Of course,” John says. “I’ll just run up and get yours.” He goes up to his bedroom and takes off his suit jacket, gets Sherlock’s stocking from the closet and charges back downstairs.

When he gets there, Sherlock is already pinning his to the mantle, attempting to shield it from John’s view with his body. “No peeking,” he orders.

“I’m not. And same goes for you,” John tells him, fastening Sherlock’s in place.

“May I say that I was having some doubts about the propriety of my gift for you,” Sherlock says. “I’m feeling much better about that now.”

“Likewise, actually,” John says. He steps back from the mantle, deliberately not looking at his own stocking on the other side.

“Let’s leave the tree plugged in tonight,” Sherlock says.

“All right,” John agrees. He looks up and notices that the mistletoe is still hanging in the kitchen doorway from the party four nights ago. Neither of them had said anything about it; they’ve both studiously ignored it and walked around it since the party and John hadn’t had the heart to take it down – just in case. He goes and stands under it now. “Come here,” he says. “We seem to have skipped over a major institution of Christmas.”

Sherlock smiles and comes over. “Well, we can’t have that,” he says, and lets himself be pulled into John’s arms and kissed very thoroughly.

It feels almost illegal, John thinks, being allowed to just kiss Sherlock in the middle of their flat. Sherlock is kissing back with every bit of enthusiasm as John is, his arms wrapped tightly around John’s shoulders. They kiss and kiss and kiss and John frankly thinks that he doesn’t care if they never sleep. He would be extremely content just to do this all night, although his body is responding to all of it rather insistently already. After a little while, Sherlock’s hands begin to wander lower in their explorations of John’s back.

John breaks off long enough to reassure him. “God, yes,” he says, breathing hard. “Please touch me…”

Sherlock makes a sound of fervent agreement and puts their mouths together again, pressing closer and John can feel him actually quivering with need, himself. He puts his own hands on Sherlock’s arse and Sherlock inhales sharply. He turns his face into John’s neck and attaches his mouth to the skin there, making John shiver. “John – ” The word is exhaled against his neck, hot and needy.

John manages to make a questioning sound, his own mouth rather occupied with Sherlock’s right ear lobe.

“Dare I ask you to spend the night with me?” Sherlock asks, his face buried in John’s neck and shoulder. “I know it’s rather sudden, but – ”

“No buts,” John interrupts. “It’s Christmas. I want to spend it with you. All of it. And God knows we’ve waited long enough for this.”

Sherlock straightens up then and looks into his eyes, so directly that John feels as though Sherlock is looking into his very mind. “Then come to bed with me,” he says, his voice and face intense.

“God, yes,” John breathes, and Sherlock takes him by the hand and leads him down the corridor.

Inside the bedroom, Sherlock closes the door and then comes over and puts himself in front of John again. His expression has lost none of its intensity as he looks John in the eye, searchingly, then bends to kiss him again. His hands come up to slip the topmost button of John’s shirt out of its hole, then the next, then the next after that. John follows suit and unbuttons Sherlock’s jacket and shirt all at once, pushing them down his arms and off him. Sherlock leaves him for a moment to hang them over the back of a chair “Give me your shirt,” he says, and John peels his own off and gives it to Sherlock. They kiss again, bare-chested now, and it’s the first time that either of them has done anything like this, John feels quite sure. He’s never been with a male before and he’s almost certain that Sherlock’s never been with anyone before, other than in very limited ways, possibly.

He goes for Sherlock’s trousers before Sherlock can make the first move, thinking that, as the more (considerably) more experienced of the two of them, perhaps he should start taking a more decisive lead. He unzips Sherlock’s suit trousers and crouches to help him step out of them, then goes for the socks while he’s at it. Socks and sex are mutually incompatible, he’s always thought. He takes his own off while he’s at it, and then Sherlock is hauling him closer and fidgeting at the zip of his trousers. John lets himself be undressed, and when they’re both in their underwear, he pulls Sherlock in again and kisses him, pinning Sherlock to himself, and it feels fantastic, being skin-to-skin like this. He doesn’t need a gift from Sherlock – this is the only thing he could have asked for. Just to be with Sherlock like this, at last.

His cock is making its agreement well known, harder than anything in his underwear and he can feel Sherlock’s responding in kind. Maybe he should ask, just to be certain. “Sherlock,” he asks, his lips brushing over Sherlock’s chin. “Have you ever – ?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Never,” he admits, his voice very low and possibly reluctant. “Does it make a difference? Do you not want – ”

“Oh, I want to,” John hastens to reassure him. “Nothing could make me not want you. It’s just – good to know, that’s all.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Sherlock admits, looking pained.

John pulls his face down and kisses his chin and his cheeks and his mouth. “I don’t care,” he whispers directly against Sherlock’s lips. “It couldn’t possibly matter. I want you.”

“I want you,” Sherlock says, breathing with difficulty, and puts his hands on John’s arse again.

John doesn’t take his mouth from Sherlock’s as he eases his underwear down now, quickly getting his own out of the way as well, and when their bodies come together next, they both gasp, pressing into each other. “Bed,” John says, and they move toward it jointly, falling onto it and into each other, rolling over and over, their arms wound tightly around one another, kissing passionately. Their bodies are beginning to rub and press together instinctively, lacking active instruction but knowing on the cellular level what is needed, what is sought. They end up with John on top, thrusting against Sherlock’s cock, and it’s enough. It’s more than enough. It’s not going to take long, this first time, but they have the rest of the night – and the rest of their lives. It’s short and hot and intense and then very, very sweet as the pleasure rises between them and squeezes itself out in shuddering waves. Sherlock comes first, all ten fingers digging into John’s arse, and the marvel of witnessing this, Sherlock’s first orgasm with another person, seeing it on his face as it happens, washes over John in a blaze of heat, his very heart on fire, and he thrusts into the sticky mess on Sherlock’s belly and comes hard, his breath caught in his throat as his entire body prickles over in shuddering waves of pleasure before he crashes down onto Sherlock’s chest.

They lie panting together for several minutes, Sherlock’s fingers cupping the back of his neck as John breathes against his shoulder, his back heaving. Then, after awhile, Sherlock gently dislodges him and gets up to get a flannel from the bathroom, bringing it back to bed for John to clean himself up with. They pull back the blankets and get into bed properly after that. John slides over to find Sherlock in the middle of the bed and they kiss again and again and it’s nothing short of being absolutely phenomenal.

“Merry Christmas,” John whispers at one point.

Sherlock kisses him again, on the mouth. “Merry Christmas,” he says. “This has been the best Christmas of my life.”

“Mine, too,” John tells him. “Thank you. Thank you for all of this.”

“Don’t,” Sherlock says. “We did it together. It’s our first proper Christmas. No shootings or suicides or any of that. Not this time. This time it’s only about us.”

“Good,” John says, with immense satisfaction. “It’s about time.”

***

They do actually sleep that night, but there are several repetitions of the initial experiment before dawn, and it’s absolutely incredible, John thinks hazily. It’s very much as though it’s entirely new to him, too, because in many ways it is. They explore and experiment together and Sherlock is hungry to learn him, learn his body (and, as John is proving, his own), as well as being very intent on pleasing John. It’s one of the most wonderful nights John has ever lived, and by the time they wake, his body feels wrung out from pleasure and he is very, very happy.

He wakes because the bedroom door is opening. Sherlock is half on top of him, his arms still locked around John, his head heavy on John’s scarred shoulder. It’s Mrs Hudson, carrying a tea tray. John is startled and tugs the sheets up, though at least they’re both covered.

Her eyes fall on them and open wide in surprise. “Oh my goodness!” she says, but doesn’t drop the tray, at least. “Well! I won’t say I’m not pleased – it’s about time! Don’t mind me; I’ll just set this down here.” She puts the tray down on Sherlock’s dresser, winks at John, and makes hastily for the door.

Sherlock stirs before she can go, though. “Mrs Hudson?” he asks against John’s shoulder in a voice thick with sleep.

She stops, not looking back. “Yes, dear?”

Sherlock clears his throat a bit. “Is everything… ready?” he asks vaguely.

“Oh, yes, don’t you worry,” she says, sounding indulgent. “You just let me know when you’re ready and I’ll come up.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock says. “Give us twenty minutes or so.”

“Whenever you like, dear.” She goes.

“Well, that was awkward,” John says, sotto voce.

“Nonsense. She’s unshockable,” Sherlock tells him sleepily. He rolls off John and stretches deeply, yawning.

John does the same, turning over to stretch an arm over Sherlock’s torso. “Merry Christmas,” he says again.

“Merry Christmas to you,” Sherlock replies. His puts his fingers into John’s rumpled hair. “Is it unorthodox to kiss first thing in the morning?”

“Not in my books,” John says, and turns his face up for a long, lovely kiss, and it confirms everything that happened during the night and he feels he is so happy he could burst.

“Last night was wonderful,” Sherlock tells him after, their faces side-by-side on the pillow.

“Yes, it was,” John agrees, stroking Sherlock’s cheekbone with his thumb. “Best night of my life.”

“Until tonight,” Sherlock says, his eyebrows darting upward in suggestion and John laughs.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get up. I want to give you my gift.”

“Likewise,” Sherlock says. They get out of bed and John goes into the loo to relieve himself and splash a bit of water on his face. He’ll shower and shave after they’ve exchanged their gifts and opened their stockings. Preferably with Sherlock, he thinks, smiling at himself in the mirror as he brushes his teeth. They trade places and he puts on one of Sherlock’s dressing gowns, the maroon one, and goes into the kitchen to put some coffee on.

Sherlock emerges a moment or two later and goes to the mantle to unhook John’s stocking. “Here,” he says, pushing John toward his chair. “Open it!”

“Just a moment,” John says. “Let me get yours.” He fetches it and hands it to Sherlock, and they sit down in their chairs to open their stockings together. Sherlock makes gratified sounds at every discovery and John laughs to see that they’ve chosen many of the same things for one another. Sherlock has also given him some expensive aftershave, a gift card to a clothing store that John likes, and a new watch. John puts it on at once and loves it instantly, never having owned such a nice watch before. “Can I give you your proper present now?” he asks.

“Sure,” Sherlock says.

“Then you have to search for it,” John tells him. “It’s in the tree.”

Sherlock smiles. “A quest. How intriguing.” He gets up and goes to the tree, surveying it. John gets out of his chair and goes to watch, as the tree is behind the chair. Sherlock bends and peers into the branches, searching methodically up and down every side until he spots it. “Aha!” He withdraws the envelope and opens it, inspecting the tickets. His face lights up. “Seasons tickets!” he says. “And two, so you’ll come with me!”

“If you want me to,” John says, feeling a bit sheepish. “You could take someone else if you wanted to – I didn’t mean it to necessarily be a present for me, too, per se.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’m taking you. And your gift is sort of something for both of us, too,” Sherlock tells him. “Speaking of which: go and sit down and close your eyes.”

“All right,” John says, feeling strangely excited. This is honestly better than any Christmas he had as a child. He’s dying to know what Sherlock has bought for him.

“Stay there,” Sherlock instructs. He crosses the room and goes to the doorway. “Mrs Hudson!” he calls down the stairs. “We’re ready!”

“Be right up!” Mrs Hudson calls back. After a moment or two, John hears her footsteps on the stairs. When she reaches the top, she and Sherlock whisper to each other for a minute, and then her voice goes higher, making the sorts of sounds she might make in the presence of a baby. (Curious, John thinks.) She leaves, closing the door of the flat behind her.

“Is she going?” John asks. “She can stay, if she wants.”

“Not just yet,” Sherlock says, his voice coming nearer. “Later. Hold out your hands. Wider. Yes, just like that. Now – careful,” he says.

John doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this – his eyes fly open as he gazes down at the bulldog puppy in his hands and lap. “Oh my God,” he says, his voice actually shaking. He looks up at Sherlock, his eyes undeniably moist. “You got me a dog.”

Sherlock’s lips are pressing together but he’s smiling. “I did,” he admits. “It was a bit of a risk, I knew, but – I thought perhaps you might like it.” He hesitates. “Do you?”

“Yes,” John tells him instantly. “Yes!

Sherlock looks relieved. He drops to his knees in front of John and the dog and leans forward so that John can kiss him, his hand coming down over John’s on the dog’s back. “Listen,” he says after, sounding very intense. “I just have to say this now: I’m not in any way trying to – that is – replace your daughter or something. Not in the slightest. And by the way, yes, I will go with you to America in the summer if you still want me to. But in the meanwhile you said you had always wanted a dog, and I know how much you miss Ainsley, and I thought a dog might… help. I feel like it must look like I’m trying to make myself Mary’s replacement and now I’ve given you a replacement for your baby, but it isn’t meant to be like that at all.”

“Don’t worry,” John tells him. “I know that. I never would have thought that. But he – or she – will be our dog, not just mine.”

“He,” Sherlock confirms. He looks down at the puppy, smiling in a way that John has never seen him do before, with the possible exception of in the presence of Lestrade’s dachshund, Toby. “He’s two months old and he’s been housebroken. I didn’t think either of us particularly wanted to go through puppy training, somehow. What should we name him?”

John studies the puppy. He is brown and white and completely wrinkled. His facial expression looks grumpy, making John think of an irate, yet somehow rather likeable client they once had. “Do you remember Richard Gladstone?” he asks.

Sherlock begins to laugh. “I do, and the resemblance is actually startling,” he says. “We can’t call a dog Richard. Gladstone?”

“Perfect,” John says, and it is. He looks down at the puppy. “Gladstone,” he says experimentally, and Gladstone looks up and licks his nose.

“I can see I’m going to have some competition,” Sherlock says.

“Never,” John tells him, and Sherlock shuffles closer on his knees and puts his arms around both of them. They kiss for a long while and it gets rather involved. Eventually John pulls back and sets Gladstone on the carpet. “I hope he really is housebroken,” he says, his breath already quicker than it was.

“He should be,” Sherlock confirms. “Mrs Hudson has had him downstairs since the day after the party and he’s been fine, apparently. She says she’s happy to watch him any time we want. And my parents won’t mind if we bring him later.”

“Good,” John says, and hauls Sherlock into his lap, his fingers already fumbling to untie the belt of his dressing gown. Sherlock straddles his legs and holds his face as they kiss. Gladstone wanders into the centre of the sitting room and lies down under the coffee table, and John feels as though everything has coalesced from relative chaos into the most intensely perfect thing he could have imagined. He is the luckiest person on the face of the earth, and yet Sherlock is kissing him as though he feels just the same way, as though he can hardly believe that this is happening and that he is still permitted to kiss John.

It’s perfect, John thinks, with immense satisfaction. It’s better than perfect. And the best part is knowing that it won’t end once Christmas is over, but will go on for the rest of their lives.

Best Christmas ever.

*